The 100 to 1 Ratio

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

When I was in college, I majored in Sociology. And, if there's just one thing I learned, it's that our prisons are disporportionately filled with black men. I'd always assumed that was true based on the news I saw and personal experiences I'd had, and it made me uncomfortable. I had a lot of questions, but fundamentally I just wanted to know, "Why?" There are some very sticky and amorphous answers — racial profiling, poverty, a legacy that offers these men fewer opportunities — but none of those answers sat well with me (not to mention the awful, racist explanations that were all too easy to find with Google), or seemed to tell the whole story. Turns out, a lot of the answer is coded into our state and federal laws that penalize similar acts differently. Getting busted for powdered cocaine and getting busted for crack have two very different consequences, for example*. It's called "sentencing disparity," and Professor Douglas Berman says it's so important he wonders whether "criminal justice reform should be the new civil rights movement."

*Today, new sentencing guidelines for crack go into effect. However, it remains uncertain if the new standards will be applied retroactively, and some people don't think the revisions go far enough.

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I just heard the statistics being quoted. It reminds me of the line: There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.

Not merely a question of race: The three main problems with the American justice system are the long sentences, the loss of political rights for felons, and the death penalty. Deal with those three things and the question of race would not be so serious.

Sent by William | 2:19 PM | 11-1-2007

in my experience in the legal system, income is the largest determinant in sentencing. income affects the lawyer you can afford. the higher priced lawyers usually know someone beit the judge or an assistant of the judge or DA and that relationship is a factor in determining the plea bargain and sentencing.

Sent by alan geiger | 2:27 PM | 11-1-2007

Remember, that if you are convicted of a drug crime, you will never get any federal funding for higher education, regardless of how rehabilitated and/or dedicated to turning your life around you may be.

If we want to be believed when we say there better lives are possible than those involving crime, we're doing a very poor job of it.

Sent by Kate J. | 2:28 PM | 11-1-2007

Is the assumption that each sub-group of Americans must commit and be convicted of criminal activity in precise correlation to their proportion of the general population? If that assumption is true (which seems like a silly Liberal concept to me, akin to asking "Why isn't Group-X represented 'enough' in college, etc...), since women make up a little over 50% of the population-at-large, shouldn't they also make up about 50% of all Americans in prison? They don't though, do they? Well, there goes THAT theory...

Sent by David | 2:30 PM | 11-1-2007

I appreciate that the panel are showing that some of the problems come from well intended laws. However it seems that some like the Jena 6 are examples of straight out racism in the legal system. I heard once that the defendants were tried before an all white jury in a majority black town. It seems that some of the problem is laws but in some cases racism is still a major factor.

Sent by Roger D Christensen | 2:30 PM | 11-1-2007

What about the correlation between sentences meted out and the marital status (mostly single mothers) of the parent(s) of the inmates?

Sent by Ed | 2:31 PM | 11-1-2007

Why is that we have no problem as a society believing that men commit more crime than women or that men are more violent than women but do have a problem believing that blacks commit more crime proportionally than whites or that blacks are more violent than whites? I suggest that we are even more sexist than we are racist and that we should be outraged by the total imbalance of the criminal justice system in dealing with men and women. This is not to suggest that the racial issue is not a problem.

Sent by P West | 2:35 PM | 11-1-2007

Twenty five years as a prosecutor convinced me that race is not so much an issue as class and economics, as your guests indicate. It also convinced me that, particularly in dealing with addiction-driven offenses, our criminal justice system is a woesome thing. Sentences decided by juries tend to be biased by considerations of how much the jury identifies with the defendant. Lengthy sentences, which destroy lives, are handed out to those to whom the jury cannot relate, or who have done even an isolated horrifying offense. The system needs reformation, but the political will for such a project is not there.

Sent by J. Stewart Schneider | 2:37 PM | 11-1-2007

If we are going to blame single mothers for crime (and let's face it, that's the most popular red herring), let's also remember that women don't become pregnant all by themselves. Where's the father? Probably in prison. At this point the question is not "How can we break the cycle" but "How can we use this cycle to our advantage in blaming black people for their treatment at the hands of a majority-white system."

Like the oft-cited argument that "all slaves were sold by their own countrymen (very few were)" it just serves to exonerate the majority culture and its judicial system of their considerable agency in creating the statistics being discussed.

Sent by Kate | 2:41 PM | 11-1-2007

You've got to take people's inherent prejudices into mind when attacking this issue, and I find it a bit disturbing when people get defensive about the statistics. For example, take the the O.J. Simpson murder case as one example of racial bias, and the public's continued outrage against his innocence verdict; however, they don't seem to have the same outrage when for example, police officers shot and killed the African immigrant in New York City (Amadou Diallo) and were let off with no charges, and in historic terms, the hundreds if not thousands of African-Americans who were systematically murdered in America with absolutely no consequence over the centuries and most recently in the 1960s. I'm not excusing him or saying that he's innocence but the prolongued outrage over his innocent verdict simply doesn't reflect the same when there's a black victim and a white assailant.

Additionally, I'm also disturbed by the ever-present mindset (and I hear this alot in the media and among common citizens) that white criminals "looked like the boy/girl next girl" and it was so hard to believe they could commit a crime. Many white criminals are given the benefit of the doubt if they look clean cut, come from a good background and are someone white jurors can relate to. The same courtesy is not given to African-American criminals and often the opposite is true when people say - he/she looks guilty. Does guilt have a color? With the increasing numbers of White Americans fleeing to the suburbs to escape minorities and moving farther and farther away from diversity, the less likely there is for those views to be challenged and them to view anyone black as "the boy/girl next door."

Sent by Chavon | 3:23 PM | 11-1-2007

Is it possible that the numbers of blacks executed or on Death Row are skewed due to the higher number of crimes committed by blacks versus whites?

Sent by Cathleen | 4:16 PM | 11-1-2007

Does the race/ethnicity of a person who is arrested and booked into jail influence how their case is processed? In my county Blacks are twice as likely to be detained in jail after booking and about three times as likely to be sent to prison as Whites.

The decision to detain in jail is influenced by the economic and social status of the individual (poor people are kept and middle class and rich people are released). Many studies have shown that a person detained in jail is more likely to be convicted and I think they are less likely to be placed on probation.

The structural problem with the criminal justice system is that it is strongly biased against poor people, mentally ill people and people who are addicted to alcohol/drugs. In my county the median family income for Blacks is $20,000 and the county average median family income is $60,000 so the Blacks are more likely to be poor than Whites.

Sent by John | 8:08 PM | 11-1-2007

The main point that seems to be over looked is that black people are sentenced more harshly for the same crimes as whites. This can not be explained away by anything other than an ingrained prejudice in the society. It is a prejudice that has been shown to be present in all races, as minorities tend to absorbs the stereotypes of the majority. For example, the idea that black men must be punished severely and physically is held within black families, hence the prevalence of corporal punishment being seen as necessary when disciplining black youth.

Sent by jon | 11:24 AM | 11-2-2007

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